A Website in a Box

A web presence is essential for any business.  Fortunately, it is possible to have a flexible, sophisticated website that supports user registration, document management, photos, videos and many other features for a very reasonable cost (or free for DIYers).   Thanks to the open source movement, there are content management systems that can handle the requirements for any business.   In order to understand why content management systems are so great, one only has to look at how websites were developed 15 years ago.

Back in the mid-90s, when the general public became aware of the World Wide Web, creating a website required writing hypertext markup language (HTML).  When using  just HTML, creating a sophisticated website was tedious and error-prone.  By the late 90s, there were programs such as Microsoft FrontPage or Adobe Dreamweaver that made website creation easier.  These programs made using plain HTML unnecessary. They also assisted  with the decorative aspects of sites.  However, the standard site created with either product was  “static.”   One could read the pages, but there was limited interactivity. For example, static sites did not support user registration, file uploads, or user comments–all one could do was read them.    Adding interactivity to a web site required programming or scripts–something  beyond the capabilities of fledging website creators.

I learned about the trials and tribulations of creating an interactive website when I built “Computing for Clinicians”  in 1998.   Originally, I created the site using Microsoft FrontPage to provide information about clinical software. After a while, the site became popular, and I decided to add capability that would allow users to login, answer surveys, and download documents.  Adding these features proved to be much more time-consuming than I expected.  I had to locate scripts to manage user logins and security. None of them worked very well, and there were always problems with file downloads.  I investigated adding database capability to the site and quickly discovered that doing so was beyond my skillset. When I investigated hiring someone for this, the quotes were in the thousand-dollar range–too much for a hobbyist site. Due to these issues, I could never afford to build the site I had envisioned.

Fortunately, a content management system (CMS) provides an affordable solution to the issues associated with building interactive websites. A CMS is comprised of three main components: the database, the programming code and the presentation layer.    User registration, file uploads, forums, blogging, polls and other interactive features are standard in many systems. If they are not in the core system, adding them is easy and usually takes only a few minutes.  The part of your site that a visitor sees and interacts with is called the presentation layer.  When creating a website using a CMS, all one needs to know about is the presentation layer.

Because of the way CMSs  are designed, the presentation layer is separate from the rest of the system. This means that one can change the appearance of the site quite easily.    Depending on the content management system,  the presentation layer is referred to as a “skin”, “theme” or “template”.    Custom designs can be pricey–from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.  However, many free designs are available, and off-the-shelf designs usually cost less than $150. Finding a CMS to meet your needs should not be a problem; between open source and commercial versions, there must be at least 100 available.

Extensibility is another key feature of CMSs.   Once a CMS is deployed, it is possible to add additional functionality through small add-on modules. Often, for open source systems, the cost of add-on modules is very reasonable. They are rarely over $50, and many are free.

Below are the four most popular CMSs; all are free.

WordPress
WordPress originated in 2003. It is the preeminent CMS for blogging; however, it may be used to build any type of website.  Functionality is added using “widgets” and “plug-ins.”  Themes provide the appearance of the presentation layer.

Joomla
Joomla originated in 2005. Out of the box, Joomla has a classic website appearance and layout.  After installation, one is presented with a standard three-column website with menus, banners, polls and articles areas.  Functionality is added using “extensions.” Templates provide the appearance of the presentation layer.

Drupal
Drupal originated in 2001.  Drupal has features that are similar to Joomla’s. Functionality is added using “modules.”  Themes provide the appearance of the presentation layer.

DotNetNuke
Unlike the three systems above, DNN is based on Microsoft technologies (ASP.NET) and runs on Windows servers.   DNN originated in 2003.  On installation, it is similar in functionality to Joomla and Drupal. New capabilities are added using “modules.” The presentation layer is referred to as a skin.

These four platforms have been used to create hundreds of thousands of sites, many of them for major businesses. Each is supported by an active user community and is updated frequently.  Installation should not be a problem; most Internet service providers will install them for free.

If you are considering upgrading your website, and want one that is flexible, extensible and easy to maintain, consider using a content management system.  It is the closest thing possible to a website in a box.

 

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